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The threat of hardware piracy
George Paul | May 29, 2007
The personal computer is finally on its way to being ubiquitous in India. PC penetration has crossed 18 per thousand people while computer sales have crossed the 50-lakh mark in 2005-06.
To talk of a growing threat faced by the IT industry may appear misplaced, but it is indeed a cause of concern and hence the subject needs our keen attention. There is a small but rapidly growing industry of hardware piracy coming to the fore. A distinct number of new computers being sold today are fitted with counterfeit, refurbished or sub-standard components.
Even counterfeit pirated software packed in an original authentic looking packing is being sold in the market. The practice itself is not new, but the scale it has reached today is causing major worries for both individual consumers and IT decision makers.
The problem of hardware piracy varies from simply putting lower spec components to actually using sub-standard, refurbished and used components in a new PC. To take a typical example, a PC sold with Pentium IV microprocessor may actually be running a lower spec chip that is much cheaper, but this chip will be artificially over-clocked (made to run at a higher speed), and even re-marked as Pentium IV.
Add some clever changes and the operating system software and even the computer shows the chip as Pentium IV, so much so that the customer will not be able to find out that he or she has actually been supplied a lower specification CPU.
In hard disks and memory chips, there is use of modules that are repaired or refurbished in what are sold as new computers. New CRT monitors have old CRT tubes that have already exhausted a significant portion of their usable life in a first world country and have been discarded or more likely dumped in third world countries.
All a manufacturer needs to do is to put the old tubes in new casings and sell them as brand new monitors. Membrane keyboards are inserted with a thin metal sheet and sold as mechanical keyboards. There are many instances of PCs with supposedly licensed operating systems carrying pirated copies of the software and passing off as the original because the license label itself is a high-quality imitation.
The problem, unfortunately, is not limited to consumer purchase. Large organisations including corporates, banks, government and academia buying new PCs in large quantities have also discovered that they have been supplied with PCs that have lower specs or spurious components.
While the extent of loss to a customer because of this piracy can be hard to put in monetary terms, the problem can be looked at in this way: if the PC carries sub-standard components, there is a huge risk of failure of the PC even under normal circumstances.
If a bad motherboard crashes because of even a minor spike in voltage, it can do irreparable damage to the microprocessor and other components. The loss in this case can be the entire value of the computer.
IT is a critical infrastructure today and no organisation can afford routine and frequent system downtime because of hardware failure. Sub-standard PCs will not only fail more frequently, they will also demand frequent calls for support and service. Over time, the organisation's expenditure in maintaining sub-standard PCs can become much more than the cost of buying those PCs in the first place.
The writer is executive vice-president, HCL Infosystems Limited